40 Years Later, Does Fear of Flying Hold Up?


This year marks the 40th anniversary of feminist classic Fear of Flying. How has Erica Jong’s tale of Isadora Wing's trip to Europe in search of the ultimate sexual encounter — "free of ulterior motives," "no power game," "zippers fall away like rose petals"— withstood the years? Three Cut staffers re-read the book, and one experienced it for the first time. Join our discussion of "chick lit," narcissism, and literary LOLs.

Maureen O’Connor: To kick this off, I think the most central question is, how does Isadora Wing hold up at 40?

Kat Stoeffel: The only thing that was distractingly dated to me was the word prick to describe a penis, not a man who acts like a penis. Oh, and the casual racial fetishism/tokenism. And the drunk driving!

Charlotte Cowles: To me, the most outdated part was the psychotherapy jargon, but it was also fascinating — to think people were still analyzing dreams and Freudian penis envy! How exhausting, but also fascinating to operate under the assumption that all human behavior could be explained and diagnosed in such a fantastical manner. No wonder she's so neurotic.

Kat: But even if the psychoanalysis is no longer fashionable or credible, the self-absorption and anxiety still felt very relevant to me. I guess what's changed are the socially acceptable ways to talk about yourself: pop psychology, Gchat, astrology ("Whoreoscopes" to Isadora), molly, and Twitter. Not to be the person who brings it all back to social media.

Maureen: As the only book clubber who had never read Fear of Flying before, my first shock was how cheesy it was. Adrian Goodlove rips his shirt off in the middle of a bar, thereby sending a geyser of frothing beer into the “creamed” crotch of Isadora Wing? But the unabashed self-indulgence was also entertaining. (That bow-chicka-bow-wow Sicilian widow fantasy! I LOLed.) The sex, relationships, and bildungsroman all felt pretty modern — sex really is cheesy sometimes.

Isadora discusses using literature as a vehicle for sexual discovery — learning about orgasms from Lady Chatterley, etc. I kept thinking that Fear of Flying would have been more fun to read when I was younger and still in that “saving lessons about sex from every possible source” phase.

Erica Jong, 1977 Photo: Sophie Bassouls/Corbis

Molly Fischer: I agree. I first read the book a few years ago — post college — and remember being disappointed. Why didn’t it feel like a super-juicy, extravagantly fun, funny page-turner? Instead I found it kind of clunky and self-conscious and overwrought. This time around, my opinion did not improve, but I do think I have a clearer sense of why my expectations were disappointed: This book belongs squarely in the canon of sex-educational literature. I think if I had read this book as a 12-year-old it probably would have burned itself in my brain. Not just the actual literal sex scenes but the vision of sexy adult life Jong presents — European road trips! Freudian hangups! Graduate school! Diaphragms. If I could still read a book about a 29-year-old in that spirit of eager anticipation, I would love this book, but I can’t.

Isadora Wing is basically a precocious and horny adolescent’s idea of an adult. Even all the repetition of her academic credentials and descriptions of her appearance read like a teenager’s fantasy adult self — like one of the possible futures Isadora and her friend Pia would have dreamed up in high school. The vaunted “zipless fuck,” similarly, seems like a fantasy that’s only really interesting from a perspective of inexperience. Why would you want clothes to “fall away like rose petals”? Struggling with buttons is part of the fun. Why would you want sex without complications? Complications are what keep things interesting.

Maureen: How did Jong’s account of female desire read to you guys?

Charlotte: I'm generally down for anything that portrays women as having their own sexual appetites independent of men, as opposed to just succumbing to them, but I continue to take issue with any literature that perpetuates the myth of women having orgasms at the mere introduction of a penis. I mean, come on. (Unless Erica Jong is just really lucky.)

Kat: I didn’t think at all about desire when I was reading and now I think that’s because Molly’s right. Isadora's not very articulate about sexual desire because, for her, it’s overwhelming and celestial in that teenage way. The zipless fuck is a nice little feminist abstraction, but in reality Adrian has her on a leash because he negs her a lot. 

Was anyone else scandalized that the zipless fuck fantasy was from the perspective of the man? Like, she couldn't even really imagine desire beyond the very banal, male-oriented, heaving-breast, necklace-trapped-in-cleavage thing. I was like, “Wait, this isn’t that hot. Oh yeah, I’m not into boobs. This is a straight dude’s fantasy.”

Maureen: Well, I do recall from that Daniel Bergner “What Women Wantarticle and book that women tended to be aroused when looking at other women in sexy situations. Some people think it’s because women want to be desired — so looking at a desirable woman allows them to imagine being similarly desired, pursued, etc.

Kat: I was amused that one of young Isadora’s “sex myths” was that men reach their sexual peak at 16 and women reach their sexual peak at 30. I definitely heard some version of that (I think by the nineties it had become 18 and 35), and when I think about it, I’m not at all surprised it’s stuck around. What an ingenious way for teenage guys to convince their girlfriends to have sex with them.

Maureen: Does this book have a 2010s analog? What if it’s Fifty Shades of Grey?! (Read Erica Jong’s smack-talking interview about Fifty Shades of Grey here.)

Kat: I think that’s so unfair. This book is not at all erotica. It’s about the emotional terrain of a very specific professional and/or intellectual class during a time of social upheaval — a much closer analog for me is The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Molly: Not in terms of the books themselves, but in terms of the conversations it seems to start — about sexual frankness, autobiographical writing, literary status and/or gatekeeping — I find myself thinking of How Should a Person Be?

Charlotte: The 40th anniversary reissue has an intro from Jennifer Weiner, discussing whether Fear of Flying would be marketed as chick lit today. That seemed more about Weiner than Jong — but then again, I have never read anything by Jennifer Weiner, precisely because her books fall into the very "chick lit" category that she describes. I feel somewhat guilty now; Weiner's self-portrayal made me want to give her a chance.

Maureen: On re-read, did anything new stand out to anyone?

Kat:  The first time I read Fear of Flying, I did not at the time appreciate how funny it is! I mean, the first scene is like the setup to a joke: So a woman gets on a plane to Vienna with 117 psychoanalysts, six of whom she’s been treated by, one of which is her husband, and she’s afraid to fly.